The Beers of Winter
It’s beyond a doubt that whatever its official calendar start date, winter is with us… and will be with us for some time to come. There’s something about these long dark nights that makes us crave the richer food and drink we would never consider in the heat of August. In that vein, what follows is a highlights reel of intriguing local winter beers for your consideration.
Any discussion of Upper Midwestern hibernal brew would be incomplete without touching on New Ulm’s August Schell and their Snowstorm. It’s a special brew brought out at the beginning of the season that showcases the skill and creativity of Schell’s brewers. Never the same twice, some Snowstorms have been so well received that they have gone on to regular production (Schell’s Stout, Firebrick, and Schmaltz’s Alt are all former Snowstorms.) Their latest Snowstorm, a Weizen Doppelbock, brings together dark toasted wheat malts and spicy / fruity hefeweizen yeast.
As Doppelbocks are to Germany, Winter Warmers, Porters, and the various Stouts are to the British brewing tradition. Historically, British brewers malted their own barley. The degree to which they are caramelized, toasted, smoked, peaty, and even charred made for different characters, and brewers quickly discovered they could create a range of tastes, texures, and alcohol levels by playing with the ratios of these specialty malts in their beers.
Think about that hefeweizen you had this summer — the way that light wheat malt blended with the spice and banana flavors of the hefe yeasts, creating a flavor not unlike a smooth, creamy, and alcoholic ice cream pushup. Now imagine, like a good cook, that you adjust one little ingredient in that mix, exchanging a darker, more caramelized wheat malt for the light. What would you have then? Actually, one answer could very well be this year’s Snowstorm. August Schell’s 2010 Snowstorm pours a fluffy custard-colored head over a slightly cloudy deep coffee hued brew. Of all the beers in this tasting, this is the one that’s most suggestive of the holidays — and it destroys the idea that wheat beers have to be bland and characterless.
Carbonation is not unexpectedly spritzy, the nose clean bright clove and banana. The flavor is sweet toasted wheat, spice cake, and, again, the clove and fruit notes from the nose, balanced with a touch of crackling bitterness off the back. Mouthfeel is smooth and velvety, drying just a bit and leaving me with a thirst for more. Hefe yeasts go so well with these darker toasted wheat malts that it’s surprising that this particular style isn’t brewed more often on the national scene.
Summit’s Winter Ale is a traditional English Winter Warmer. Mellow, malty, fruity, sometimes even spiced, but never really bitter, the style offers a more friendly, approachable brew specifically made to take that chilly edge off. It pours a sticky, loose head over a clear, but very dark brown brew that betrays a bright ruby edge when held up to the light. The nose is clean, slightly fruity English Ale yeast and notes of mocha. The flavor is dark malt with notes of coffee and oak and a little herbal bitterness for balance. It’s almost as dark as a porter or even a stout, and the mouthfeel is much lighter and cleaner, finishing semi-dry and even slightly tannic.
Lake Superior Sir Duluth Oatmeal Stout is a good introduction to the style, and, as an added bonus, mild stouts like this one are also very nice for making beer floats! This beer pours a finger of sand-colored foam over the requisite black brew. Carbonation is moderate, and the nose is mocha and toasty malt and a whiff of English yeast funk. The flavor is mild toasted malts with notes of smoke and molasses, with the merest hint of herbal hop and char off the back for balance. Mouthfeel is round, smooth, and a little light for a stout. There are certainly a lot of bigger, more complex stouts out there, but this one plays its note and plays it well.
The Hub City Brewing Company is named to evoke the literal hub for three branches of the old Chicago Great Western Railway, in historic Oelwein, IA, near which they are located. The brewery’s Oatmeal Stout pours a bare ring of tan foam over an opaque black brew. Carbonation is moderate and steady, the nose is smoke, bitter chocolate, and a dark note of booze. The flavor is burnt malt, unsweetened chocolate, and leather, with a sharp note of grassy hops off the back. Mouthfeel is also light for a stout, and finishes dry.
The Imperial Stout is another winter variation — it’s a style that tends to be brewed with even more malts than regular stouts, resulting in a heavier body and substantially more alcohol. They were originally brewed this way to stop barrels of the stuff from freezing when they were exported to the chilly Baltic countries. Made right, they make for a very delicious digestif.
Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout pours a big tan head over a black brew. The nose is mocha with molasses and vegetal notes. The flavor is warm sweet roasted malt up against grassy / medicinal hop flavors and rough notes of alcohol. Mouthfeel starts round but dries up with a long grassy hop finish. There’s something a little unpleasant here — perhaps a little more aging and a different mix of hops might moderate the flavors and the alcohol bite.
Point Whole Hog Russian Imperial Stout pours a thin head over the now familiar opaque black fluid. The nose is toasted barley hulls and rummy notes. The flavor is sweet dark malts, with notes of dark fruit and mocha and a mild alcohol bite off the back. Mouthfeel is round and smooth, with a mild toasted malt and grassy / herbal hop aftertaste, balanced and delicious. Think of it as a digestif, perhaps something to be consumed contemplatively at the end of the day.
Dark Horse is a scrappy little brewery building giant beers out of Marshall, MI. Its Fore Smoked Stout pours a deep chocolate-colored head over an inky black brew. The nose is smoke (though not cloying) over dark chocolate with notes of leather.
The flavor is more of that smoke with roasty malts and bakers chocolate notes, with a little bite of charred bread off the end for balance. Mouthfeel is smooth and round, with a long mellow finish. Smoked ales are pretty tricky — that particular flavor is so aggressive it’s easy to end up with a beer that tastes like a Slim Jim. Fore finds that proper balance: The smoke is a point of complexity that does not dominate.
At the mellow end of the dark spectrum, don’t neglect all the Oktoberfests still out there. They may be on the sales rack, but if they were perfect in October, they’re still fine in December. Schell had a particularly fine one, and Summit, Capital, Lake Superior, and Tyranena all brew up worthy examples.
Brau Brothers Ringneck Braun Ale brings a lot of big flavors with just a touch of hop bitterness (their Cream Stout is also good, with or without ice cream). Surly’s signature Bender has fairly high bitterness, but it’s balanced with huge malt flavors.
A little farther afield, Full Sail’s Session Black would be a crowd pleaser even without the rock / paper / scissors game under the bottle caps. O’Dell’s Isolation Ale and Deschutes’s Jubelale are both fine domestic Winter Warmers (and new to the Minnesota market). If you want to go to the source, Samuel Smith is a British label that makes a fine Winter Warmer, Oatmeal Stout, and Imperial Stout as well.
Flat Earth and Summit both make a fine Porter. Summit also makes a good Stout, and Schell’s Stout is fine, balanced, and sweet. Michigan’s Bells Brewery offers an array of good Stouts and Porters — their Expedition Stout is thick enough to stand a spoon in and has a lot of rich chocolate and coffee flavors. Pro tip: Try making pancakes with their Cherry Stout instead of water or milk.
Finally, do consider the various Belgian and Belgian-inspired styles out there. Affligem and Delirium both make Christmas brews called Noël. Unibroue’s Terrible is, in fact wonderful — very dark, rich, and alcoholic, and the Trois Pistoles is medium-bodied and fruity. Jolly Pumpkin’s Noel de Calabaza is aged in old wine barrels, adding a nice tartness to their dark Christmas Ale.